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Running high for the British Lung Foundation

After his dad was diagnosed with COPD, Jason and his wife Julie took on the Zermatt ultra marathon to raise money and awareness of lung disease. 

Jason and Julie with their medals for completing the Zermatt ultra marathon

After two decades on the coalface,  my dad discovered he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD for short. Finding that out has changed his life. Fortunately, the British Lung Foundation was there to help. They provided so much help and the local Breathe Easy support group has been amazing. 

My wife Julie and I wanted to find a way to say thank you for all the support we got, so we decided to take on our very own fundraising challenge. 

Choosing Zermatt for our challenge

A year before I had completed an uphill half marathon in the Alps. The run itself was a beautiful thing,  the scenery was second-to-none. 

After crossing the finish line, I’d taken the railway to the very top of the mountain where ultra marathon runners were staggering across the line, having run over twice as far as me, and I stared at them in awe.

A spark of a thought ignited in my mind and a few weeks after returning home I’d signed up for the Zermatt-Gornergrat ultra marathon, wide-eyed but determined to do it. The race was a 28-mile uphill run through the Swiss Alps, climbing a mile-and-a-half in altitude, finishing at over 10,000 feet.

Ju, who hates running uphill, bravely signed up for the half marathon. We were both out of our depths but had 11 months to train.

Gornergrat, the finish of the Zermatt Ultramarathon at just over 3000m

Gornergrat, the finish of the Zermatt ultra marathon at just over 3000m.

The training was a massive challenge 

I was a runner back in the day, over 20 years ago now, but I had never run over 20 miles before. Many beers have since passed these lips and I knew it was going to be a huge challenge. Not only was it a 28-mile effort, but it was also all run at altitude, with the air getting thinner and thinner as the race progresses until there’s 30% less oxygen than at sea level at the finish. 

Over the months I trained as hard as I dared. One of my achilles tendons needs looking after these days, but it held up over the months. I ran a 32-mile ultra-marathon, then completed the Boston UK marathon, rowed a marathon on an indoor rower, ran a solo marathon on a treadmill and spent a couple of months running up every hill I could find in Spain during a winter motorhome tour.

Ju’s training was going equally well until she tripped on a trail in Spain and damaged her knee, setting her back by over two months.

Come the summer, we were back out on the road again and heading for the Alps to get some altitude training. Ju’s knee was working again by this point, but Zermatt is something else. I steadily jogged up the Col de la Madeleine as we got closer to the event, a full 26.2-mile marathon, but even that was shorter than Zermatt and only a mere 13 miles of it was uphill! It was clear in training the races were going to be tough, despite our efforts beforehand.

The race profile for the Zermatt ultra, mainly uphill.

The race profile for the Zermatt ultra marathon. As you can see, it is mostly uphill.

While we were training, we posted regular updates from our motorhome travel blog and used it as our main source of fundraising. It gets thousands of readers a month, many of which have been following our travels for years, and loads donated just to say ‘thanks’.

With blog posts and videos, we explained what we were doing and what it meant to us, and tried to get across the difficulty of the challenge. 

Time for race day!

The scenery in the Zermatt valley belies description; it’s an incredibly beautiful place. I usually find myself blocking out the world around me on long runs, just taking in the trail ahead. Not here. The mountain, stood clear against a blue sky, isn’t the kind of backdrop us UK runners normally get to stare at and it poured energy into me!

Jason at mile 19 on the Zermatt Ultra Marathon

Me at mile 19 of the Zermatt ultra marathon

As the race ascended, the sights became more and more impressive. Up there, in a land of rock and snow, our lungs were rasping as we tried to eke out a jog on the steep trail. All around stood 4000m high peaks, glaciers frozen in time between their shoulders, the scenery of the gods.

In working towards anything for several months, I suspect anyone will pass through periods of doubt. I certainly did. Running long miles alone, sore and tired, can be tough. Pains and niggles aroused suspicions that I was just not cut out for this stuff.

It was at those moments that I visualised pulling myself along those last few hundred meters to the finish line, my hand being shaken and being wrapped in the gold blanket, feeling a huge sense of achievement, belonging and relief.

Having spent so much time thinking about it, I can tell you that the actual sensation of crossing the line, arms aloft with the now cloud-shrouded Matterhorn behind me, met every expectation. It was a feeling of pure, intense joy. After collapsing in a corner and shedding a tear of relief I called Julie, who’d struggled but had safely completed the course, a perfect end to an incredible event.

Matt crosses the finishing line

Crossing the finish line at the Zermatt ultra marathon

After the event, we were invited to talk about our achievement at Dad's Breathe Easy group. Although a little nervous, we really enjoyed being able to present to the members there and see some of the faces we’d been able to give a little back to, which was a great feeling. It was really important to remind ourselves why we'd put ourselves through all this for nearly a year! 

Inspired to take on your own ultra marathon?  Sign up to take on Race to the Tower for the British Lung Foundation today and help fund life-saving research!

Do you have a story to tell? It could be about your lung condition, a friend or relative you know who lives with one, or how caring for them impacts your life. We'd love to hear what you've got to say!

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10 January 2020